“Blastoma” might feel like an unfamiliar word, but it’s one Ngaiire Joseph knows intimately. It’s the name for a cancer she was diagnosed with as a three-year-old girl in Papua New Guinea. Blastoma isn’t a ‘cancer album’ per se (if that’s even a thing), but it carries the weight and complexity of pivotal life moments. That word represents a moment where everything changes — emotionally, physically, philosophically — and suggests periods of turmoil, pain, disappointment, resentment, healing and triumph. Times when one or those is glimpsed but another dominates. Times where all of those crash together in an instant.
Time as an entity lurks and creeps around within most of the songs: “Cruel”, which traverses expectations and reality around love; and “I Wear Black”, which matches colors to emotions and life experiences, within one narrative. The first single “Once” seems to represent time itself – the pleasure of a moment that stands still and the bittersweet sense of loss inherent in the passing of one moment to another. It’s in her mournful, deep singing about repeatable acts of love/escape – “and if we did it for love, we didn’t do it enough.” But also in the muted but persistent groove of the song. It feels like it could go on and on to infinity (and some of us listeners get compelled to make that happen, the beauty of replay) — appropriate for a song that’s wistful and even regretful about the way moments end, to never return.
Heartbreak is endemic to these songs about time, or the other way around. But musically heartbreak and time take on different shapes. The infinity loop of “Once” is broken by the more dynamic “House on a Rock”, where a dancefloor-filling track keeps threatening to break out, and partially does, behind Ngaiire’s confessional moment on a pedestal, proclaiming love and security to be dead. Everyone be quiet, she has something to say. “We built a house on a rock”, she tells us, but the rock turned out to be ice, which inevitably melts. I admire how the song starts with her trying to get someone’s attention – ours, or her inattentive lover’s – before letting this story of crumbling love loose.
The music and singing on Blastoma contain visceral pleasures that lie somewhere within a range of atmospheric yet vigorous pop; heart-wrenching confessional anthems with the starkness and uplift of gospel; and progressive R&B with a robust dreamworld vibe. In the latter area, Blastoma hits notes not dissimilar to some of the other best music of 2016 — by KING, Corinne Bailey Rae, Jamila Woods — yet stands further outside genre particulars, with more space for show-stopping moments of high drama like that of “House on a Rock”.
Other big moments like that take much different musical forms. They also often start out deceptively low-key, like “I Can’t Hear God Anymore”, where whispered reflections on loneliness in the wake of a lover’s departure glide at the three-minute mark into an anguished expression of devastation, where her voice twists, extinguishes itself, and then belts out, in tears. “I can’t hear God anymore / ever since you left…” All the while she’s supported by seraphic backing vocals.
The backing vocals throughout Blastoma are worth studying. They stealthily support and question the lead vocals – as a mirror, loudspeaker or conscience. They also provide texture that’s as simple yet mood-generating as the synth parts and drum patterns. A beautiful example of the synchronicity between simple yet rich vocals and instrumental parts is “Cruel”, a duet with producer/musician Jack Grace. Another is the much different single “Diggin’”, where Ngaiire tells a metaphoric story of guilt and denial while the backing singers turn it into a show.
On “Many Things” the rhythmic twitches and turns come together with the stage-show vocal echoes to employ the emotional pull of the song, which continually turns upward while churning deeply. That song gives the album one of its emblematic lines: “There are many things that I don’t know how to say.” Blastoma exemplifies the many ways music helps us explain these unspeakable feelings, through a combination of words, sounds, moods and melodies that work on each other, through each other and around each other.
The songs themselves operate that way — like on all the great pop albums, the majority of songs feel like singles – and the album does too. It ends with a perfectly pitched finale. “Fall Into My Arms”, the most generous and caring track, circles back to themes of the antsier opening “Anchor” – uniting and serving as counterpoint to the songs in between.
The song gives words of comfort to someone on the verge – to the singer herself, to the lover who left her devastated, to the collective masses of humanity that are in a painful, confusing state of being. It’s “I’ll Be There” rewritten for our messed-up times, an embrace and breath of relief for us all. She sings, in a voice of striving, “I know that you’re hurting… I’ll be here when you decide that you want to fall into my arms.” Those peaceful backing vocals return, a chorus of human or post-human decency and goodness in the face of extreme despair.